Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Witchfinder General
full title : Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General
US title : The Conqueror Worm
UK 1968 : Michael REEVES, 87m
One of the most in-your-face films ever released – or should that be unleashed? The movie’s bleak and unrelenting violence caused such a stir back in 1968, and remains strong stuff even by today’s standards. Director Reeves pulls no punches in telling a story of surface simplicity but vast political and historical interest. It’s also arguably the closest approximation to the classic Western ever made in the British Isles, and one of the most remarkable cinematic treatments of that country’s wilder landscapes.
As Civil War rages in rural England, corrupt “witchfinder” Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) exploits the ignorant, superstitious populace as he rides from village to village, cheerfully executing anyone identified as potentially suspect by the mob.
Eventually Hopkins falls foul of a headstrong soldier in Cromwell’s army (Reeves regular Ian Ogilvy) whose lover is the daughter of one of the witchfinder’s hapless victims.
Following Castle of the Living Dead, The She Beast and The Sorcerers, this was Reeves’ fourth and final film before he committed suicide at the age of 25 – a hammer-blow from which the British horror film arguably never recovered. Perhaps uniquely among genre films set in the past, Witchfinder General contains no supernatural elements whatsoever. The horror is instead explicitly, disturbingly political and psychological – peasants stand stony-faced as their fellow villagers are hanged, burned and tortured, and it’s hard not to think of Nuremberg (as well as Dreyer’s Day of Wrath).
Reeves’ approach is occasionally crude: his use of incidental music is especially heavy-handed (though Paul Ferris’s score is generally excellent). But the directorial techniques are entirely appropriate given the extreme nature of this material and the fact that Reeves is deliberately echoing and critiquing ‘traditional’ British horror movies.
He was also the only director ever to draw a totally straight performance from Price. Though his work in such camp spectacles as Theatre of Blood and Masque of the Red Death is undeniably more enjoyable, Witchfinder General is his most effective screen characterisation – thanks mainly to the skill with which it is integrated into, and forced to serve, Reeves’s bracingly sour overall design.
review written 2000, updated 29th May 2004
by Neil Young